Say a little prayer for Sweden

Christianity in Sweden has a long history, but you won't find many Swedes in the pews on a Sunday. But that doesn't mean Swedish religious groups don't have the capacity to cause a stir, as Christine Demsteader reports.

It seems the ubiquitous Holy Spirit has met its match in Sweden. God would probably have a pretty hard time getting a personnummer, and it would take a real miracle to prove his credentials to Migrationsverket.

Quite simply, the majority of Swedes don’t think the big man exists. That’s according to a European Commission report from 2005 which states just 23 percent of Swedes believe there is a God. Only Estonia and the Czech Republic can wave their atheist flags higher. Contrast this with the United States, where a Harris poll from 2005 showed that 82 percent of Americans believe in the Big G.

Swedes’ lack of belief in traditional Christianity has not been replaced by belief in other religions – they have abandoned religion altogether. Odin, Thor and Aegir will be turning in their mythological graves.

Sweden was one of the last pagan bastions of Europe to convert to Christianity. Missionaries flocked to the Scandinavian peninsula from the 9th century onwards, the legendary heathen temple of Uppsala was destroyed 100 years later and worship of false gods was finally forbidden.

A couple of hundred years passed without incident, under the authority of Catholic archbishops, until religious proceedings were disrupted by a German monk. The teachings of Martin Luther set the precedent for the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s and the basis for the Church of Sweden as we know it today.

The Church and State became a marriage made in monopoly heaven and regulation through Parliament would last almost four centuries.

The Swedes were a God-fearing bunch until competition challenged the consecrated cartel in late 18th century. In 1860, a change in law allowed Lutheran Swedes to leave the church so long as they converted to another religion.

The right to stand outside any religious denomination was only established in 1951, in the Law on Freedom of Religion.

In 2000 the church and state divorced after decades of debate, placing it on the same footing as other religious organisations. But the Church prefers to refer to the split as simply “new relations,” says Priest Eva Brunne, assistant to the Bishop of Stockholm.

“We are not the only religion in Sweden any longer,” she says. “It just can’t be that one church dominates when there are parishes where the Swedish Church is in the minority. We are one among others and that is very important.”

The Swedish church certainly likes to sing its own praises. They proudly proclaim that some 80 percent of the population are members – largely a consequence of the days when Swedes automatically became members at birth. Nowadays, people have to actively choose to join, but those who are members from birth have to make an active decision to leave.

“People remain members for three reasons; tradition, solidarity or because they believe in God,” Brunne says. But that number is decreasing year on year. In 1996 tax forms revealed for the first time exactly how much money individuals were donating to church coffers (about 1.2 percent of taxable income). Needless to say the swift exodus began.

However, according to the latest church figures from 2003, Swedes still turn to the Church of Sweden for the big events in their lives, from birth to death – 68 percent are baptised, 36 percent are confirmed, 60 percent are married and 87 of funerals are held in church.

But in reality, the echoes of hallelujah are becoming harder to hear and you can count the heads in most congregations on two hands. Sunday mornings means barren pews and lonely hymnbooks: “It’s probably only around one percent of the population that regularly attend church services,” admits Brunne. “But the Church of Sweden is really a greater part of life in the Swedish countryside.”

Indeed, Sweden’s bible belts on the Skåne-Småland border, the West coast and Gotland house the country’s conservative Sunday best brigade. “But in the bigger cities, the church is more progressive.” She means that in Stockholm 50 percent of all priests are women, including Bishop Caroline Crook. And the church holds surprisingly open views on homosexuality at a time when clergymen in other countries are still struggling with the concept.

“On a national level, the majority are in favour of the consecration of homosexual partnership,” says Brunne. And she should know; a lesbian who has had her partnership blessed within the sacred walls.

Culturally, however, the church’s modern thinking still has a way to go. Sweden today is a hybrid of religions and ethnicity; there is talk of a religious renaissance but that has little to do with Lutheranism. Rather, it’s largely due to the country’s immigrant population.

After Christianity in its many denominations, Islam is the second largest religion in Sweden.

Although there are no concrete statistics, estimates suggest there are around 200,000 to 400,000 Muslims living in Sweden.

“Sweden’s multi-religious environment today is a good thing,” Brunne says. “Personally, I have become a more conscious Christian and Lutheran because of it. But when it comes to other religions and cultures, the church and society still has very much to learn.”

Talking about education, religion has created as much commotion as you’ll find in a pre-school playground. In 1969 the all-embracing Religionskunskap replaced the confessional Kristendomskunskap on the Swedish school curriculum. It has been the subject of scrutiny ever since, with some calling for more emphasis on Christianity and others who say faith has no place in the classroom.

And who said religion and politics don’t mix? The Swedish Christian Democrat party, founded in 1964, was allegedly established after threats to remove religious education in Swedish primary schools altogether. Devout church-goers took to the streets in demonstration, joined saintly forces beyond the Sabbath and, so it goes, the party was formed.

The school-religion debate rumbles on today but mainly surrounds independent religious schools, usually run by the country’s controversial Christian “free churches.” Pentecostal, Baptist, and Evangelical worship are thrust under this banner and some extreme factions have even been labelled as bible-bashing cults. Blows have been traded between politicians and pastors; MPs cry fundamentalism while preachers use the word of God to defend their classrooms.

The discussion was recently taken up in a sermon at Sweden’s biggest and perhaps most controversial free church, Livets Ord (Word of Life), in Uppsala. The evangelical movement houses the largest place of worship in Europe along with a school and “university” all within a campus-like community just outside the city.

Ecclesiastical frontman, Pastor Ulf Ekman, founded Livets Ord in 1983 and today it has a 3,000 strong following of born-again believers. Aside from famous members like Carola, the church’s pro-Israel preoccupation has been a profile raiser: the church has Christian Zionist beliefs, and helps Jews move to Israel, primarily from Russia. This, followers believe, will fulfill biblical prophecy and bring the second coming of Christ closer.

Within Sweden, attention on Livets has focused on the church’s occasionally sect-like image and on its educational activity. Scrutiny of the organization’s schools has been intense, something that Ekman himself has noted with concern:

“Christian schooling in Sweden is more challenged today than ever,” Ekman told his congregation at a recent service.

“Our school started in 1985 and since has been debated more than any other school of the face of this planet. It is constantly being checked by the education authorities and the government is welcome to come back, come back and come back again.”

Ekman freely quoted Göran Persson, who has demanded more control of such schools and responded: “The government thinks that independent religious schools breed segregation. But parents have the right to choose the school which is best for the development of their child.”

“We have a historical right,” Ekman continued. “We need free Christian upbringing and education even in little Sweden. The picture of our school as segregated is a perverted vision and we say the truth will set us free.”

But the free churches have hardly been helped in their battles with the government by recent scandals involving wilder elements among Sweden’s evangelical movement. Remember the case which rocked the quiet village life of Knutby? The cult-sex-murder triangle was followed by wacky tabloid revelations from church leader Åsa Wauldau, whom the press dubbed the “Bride of Christ” (Kristi Brud). It unfolded into a spiritual saga that wouldn’t have been out of place on the big screen or the best sellers list.

And let us not forget Åke Green; the Swedish Pentecostal pastor from Öland, who was sentenced to a month in prison following his sermon in which he described homosexuality is “a cancer on the body of society.”

It was something of a freedom of speech victory for the free church when Green was later acquitted by Sweden’s Supreme Court. Still, the pastor paid an enduring price of shame for his homophobic outburst in equality-crazed Sweden.

The story made headlines elsewhere and, in a fashion, even went as far as putting Sweden back on the religious map – a sacred place the country has not been for centuries and is unlikely to return. Amen.